Briefly: You couldn’t pick up a phone?

The 2/16 One Big Happy, in which Ruthie tries to make sense of an interaction between her grandmother and her Uncle Andy:

Several layers of indirection here, starting with

(1) You couldn’t pick up a phone?

instead of

(2) Couldn’t you pick up a phone?

Ruthie correctly picks up (1) as strongly suggesting (more strongly than (2)) that the addressee couldn’t pick up the phone, so she took her grandmother to be implicating that her uncle was in fact incapable of picking up a phone; he was real puny and weak.

In fact, (1) is intended to convey, in this context:

(1′) You couldn’t pick up a phone and call me?

And that question is really about the addressee’s ability to call the speaker (picking up a phone is just a preliminary step to making a call). And asking about this ability implicates that the addressee didn’t call, which further implicates that he should have. So (1) is accusatory.

But (1) apparently asks only about Andy’s (in)ability to pick up a phone, something he’s clearly able to do, so it seems to be mocking him. And that’s sarcasm.

This is very far from a full and careful analysis, but it should give you the flavor of the thing (which is several levels of indirect, and sarcastic as well). And it begins to show how Ruthie’s literal understanding of a question about picking up a phone leads her to miss her grandmother’s aim in uttering (1).

All of this led me to wonder about children’s acquisition of sarcasm (both producing it and understanding it), at least in the simple case where a declarative or exclamatory sentence A (like That’s a great idea or What a great idea!) is intended sarcastically, to convey contempt for what A apparently asserts, and so to assert (indirectly) the contrary of A. No doubt there’s some literature on this acquisition, but I am unfortunately ignorant of it.

 

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